Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Retro Review & Commentary On The OD&D Adventure Module- X2 Castle Amber By Tom Moldvay For Your Old School Campaigns

Castle Amber is only thirty two  pages but its one of the most expansive adventure modules I own, it packs a dollop of an adventure into its confines. It combines all of the pulp and Gothic basics of  Clark Aston Smith's The Colossus of Ylourgne with the flourish of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher mixed in with some nasty monsters this side of HP Lovecraft. Then there are horrific bits scattered throughout the module with its NPC encounters, varied puzzles, solid traps,tricks, and though its a 'fun house' adventure. It has its own internal consistence and horrors throughout its thirty two pages. According to Wiki it was published  in Nineteen Eighty one  as a thirty two page booklet with an outer folder and a cover designed by Erol Otus
The set up for this adventure is unlike many other OD&D adventures that came before it, the players are drawn into the literal world of  fictional medieval French province of Averoigne by Clark Aston Smith. The set up according to Wiki is classic and very creepy;
"During their night's rest on their way to Glantri, the player characters are unexpectedly drawn into a large castle surrounded by an impenetrable, deadly mist. This is the result of a curse the wizard-noble Stephen Amber (Etienne d'Amberville) put on his treacherous relatives for murdering him." The first thing to note is the mists that surround the castle and its environs. These predate Ravenloft and its environs but they remind me of both Ravenloft and Roger Zelasny's 'Amber Chronicles'. This is not a low level adventure at all, in point of fact this adventure has wiped out a number of PC's I've run through it.

The module was developed by Dave Cook, Allen Hammack, Kevin Hendryx, Harold Johnson, Tom Moldvay, and Jon Pickens, and the adventure has  got a feel someplace between HP. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. There's some really creepy NPC's, lots of adventure set pieces that are folded back into themselves and an internal consistency to the adventure that adds more then a bit of depth. But over the years of searching through Clark Aston Smith novels I was disappointed to find out that the Amber family (d'Amberville in French) is actually an invention for this adventure. None the less there's an entire reason why all of the characters seem to belong to another famous family according to Wiki is 'the Amber family name, a couple personas of the Amber family members in the module, and the Grey Mist and curse, are all directly inspired by Roger Zelasny's 'Amber Chronicles' fantasy series.' This lesser known fact is something over the years I exploited to create links between the families of the Amber Chronicles,Mystara, Ravenloft, and Averoigne. Today I'd be far more original and create an entire mythology around the environs, monsters, and horrors of  Castle Amber.

Castle Amber isn't an adventure to be taken lightly on the part of the dungeon master, there is a ton of weirdness going on within the grounds of the castle and bits of the surrounding countryside. The horror and Gothic elements are going to depend upon a sense of consistency and fluidity on the DM's part to get through and around the NPC's in this adventure. So do yourself a favor and read then reread the adventure a couple of times. The ideas and encounters found within Amber are both fun but extremely deadly, pay close attention to the recommended PC levels before running this one. Another thing about this module is that this world has both an Inquisition and magick is frowned upon. Your going to be dealing with wizards and spell caster's being burnt at the stake if the PC's decide to settle down in France of the Castle Amber adventure.
Another thing too is the fact that Amber has at its heart some very Lovecraftian monsters but with a Poe skin around the Dungeons and Dragons system. Its a weird mix that works. Now over the years that I've run Castle Amber there been more then a few experiences that have taught me one very valuable lesson. Keep the adventure and all of Castle Amber isolated from your own campaign world. The adventure is a world unto itself and has little in common with the outside world; the place loses its mystique when it's history, background, and magick spin into the 'real' world of your campaigns. Background, setting elements, adventure NPC's and more are there for the players to experience and explore. There is as much investigation in this adventure as blood shed and violence. Hack and slash players are going to be in for a very bad time in some areas of Amber. Thinking in Amber is primary to PC's survival and this adventure has taught me that in spades. This is also an adventure for a large group of players, seriously to do this adventure justice your going to need between six to ten PCs of levels three through six.

There are elements of dungeon crawling, wilderness hex investigation, mystery and investigation, and some good old fashioned ultra violence. The Dungeon master should be very familiar with the works of Clark Aston Smith, there's a nice resource for  the complete works of Clark Ashton Smith over at
The monsters in Castle Amber are deadly, horrid, and straight out of HP Lovecraft's imagination. They're are some very inventive encounters but be warned this module is straight up deadly at times. Believe it or not this is one of the modules where role playing is key to the entire adventure. Magic items are weird and have some very interesting uses just like in Clark Aston Smith's stories. Castle Amber boasts some of the most over arching plot elements for an old school OD&D adventure many have described these as rail road like and take the PC's deep into the adventure's plot elements. This isn't a single session module, this whole OD&D adventure is a mini campaign that may take weeks and sessions of play to complete.

Unlike Isle of Dread, Castle Amber is what I like to call a journey module. The PC's are taken on a journey deep into the world and campaign environment of the adventure setting. This isn't a normal sword and sorcery adventure but recently I've heard of a dungeon master running this with Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The module's locations and other environs being echoes of Old Earth. I had to say that it was an original take on the Castle of Amber adventure and setting.

Personally if I was going to run Castle Amber now in my life, I'd use either OD&D, Swords and Wizardry or first choice would be Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This adventure has so many Gothic elements, weird NPC's and Lovecraftian horrors that its a natural progression. The last time that I ran X2 Castle Amber was actually with Jack Shear's Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque setting. It was very, very, interesting and not all of the PC's are here today to tell the tale. X2 Castle Amber is a favorite of mine and has so much to offer a DM willing to embrace its strange elements and high weirdness.

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